Photographing the Land

My introductory text for TARKINE, a book of contemporary words and images on the Tarkine wilderness region of north-western Tasmania. Published by the WWF and Allen & Unwin, September 2004

Our world is filled with many things, some that are of our making, and others remarkably different such as mountains, clouds, rivers, trees, the sky and the sea.  The minutiae and the majestic have equally stirred our soul, inspiring wonder, allegiance, curiosity and delight.  Countless memories are defined by these moments, and our overall conception of them has contributed to an idea that we call nature.  The history of landscape art traces our growing conception of nature and our relationship with it.  Art, and creativity in general, extends our reality into the virtual recesses of consciousness, and the dreams and desires that flow from it.  As artists we reinvent these experiences, sharing our revelations, beliefs, hopes, passion and ignorance.

For centuries, lens based technology was used to extend our vision and understanding; to see further and deeper than with our eyes alone.  With microscopes and telescopes, and eventually with photography itself, we sought to explore and understand the underlying structure of matter and the depths and mysteries of the universe.  This quest was based on a belief in nature’s continuousness, which made perfect sense when seen through our eyes, on our small planet, and in our own backyard.  Photography’s inherent ability to reproduce continuous tonality did nothing to dissuade us from this assumption.  Up until quite recently, and in some disciplines not until late in the twentieth century, we took for granted the ‘boundlessness of nature’.  Our grand rationalist project was to capture the nature of nature as seen.

Since its invention in the early nineteenth century, photography has accompanied countless expeditions into ‘distant lands’.  Photography was at first employed as documentation, reporting found or assumed relationships with the land, thereby establishing the first tradition of landscape photography.  These often exceptional documentary photographs had begun to evolve by the end of that century into pictorial images preconceived from an idea of what the land might also represent, be it poetic, mythological, or spiritual.  Mixed with a desire to proclaim photography an art form in its own right, the landscape became increasingly interpreted rather than documented, often echoing earlier traditions of classic landscape art.

Modernist photography, by the mid twentieth century, had become associated with an overriding attention to the inherent qualities of its optical and chemical processes.  Smooth surfaced and silver rich papers, extended depth of focus, heightened resolution and exquisite tonal renderings came to signify more than the landscape itself.  Both informed and informative, these images often bridged the documentary and pictorial traditions, and inspired a post war generation to consider even more personal or pressing visions.  Landscape photographers  began privileging a cooperative, or at least a humbled relationship with the land, in the face of a growing ecological realisation that nature was in fact not ‘boundless’ nor inexhaustible.

By the 1970s, during a time of growing social debate, increasingly urgent political and cultural realities dominated all areas of photographic practice.  Photography became a site of intervention, redefinition, and negotiation as it served the cultural, social and political issues of the era.  With its formal inclusion in art school curriculum and public art collections, the question was no longer whether or not photography was an art, but what was photography.  While the photograph may have been innocently taken, that is created innocent of the codes and conventions constructing its meaning, its reading remained buried in our interrogation of the world.  The photograph as read, rather than as seen, had begun to dominate our cultural consciousness.

Landscape photographers reflected on and questioned ideas about rights, ownership, and access; heritage, gender, and race; perception, subjectivity, and representation.  Collaborative and community based projects flourished as the focus of art diversified through competing values and priorities.  A new formalism emerged as the heroics of the past gave way to collective practices that privileged a respectful and cooperative relationship with the land.  What was once the subject matter of landscape photography, had become subject-that-matters for landscape photographers.

Through the very design and force of the medium itself, landscape photography was embedded within nature.  This is a significantly different practice compared with travelling overland for inspiration or source material, before returning to create in a remote studio.  Landscape photographers must work in nature.  More than a spectator, their direct participation and sympathetic engagement defines a symbiotic relationship with the land.  Their work represents both the experience of being there, and the act of recording that presence.  The landscape has become their studio.

The uniqueness of Tasmania’s landscape, and in particular the Tarkine region, presents unequalled opportunities and challenges for landscape photographers.  If properly understood, their work has the potential to reshape our intellectual, social, personal and spiritual relationship to the world.  While it engages us with a fascination and reverence for the earth, I trust it will also inspire the motivation needed to ensure its preservation.

Copyright Les Walkling 2004